Monday, February 26, 2007

In The Dock: Music being played too loudly from car stereos

(If you're wondering what this is all about, click here.)

This week's subject: Music being played too loudly from car stereos

The case for the prosecution (Alison)

I seem to have volunteered to prosecute one of my pet peeves again, rather than discuss an emotive and significant music related issue. My contribution is late, I have an evil hangover, the shop has no Irn Bru and I’m on day one of my latest attempt to quit smoking. I have all the anger I need for a prosecution case but all I really want to say is that I hate music being played too loudly from car stereos because it’s wanky. I shall try to be more constructive.

Music is obviously a social tool, it’s best when enjoyed with others. I think sharing music is a great thing, I enjoy playing the things I love at the moment for friends and I like when they introduce me to what they are enthused about. But it’s just rude to force what you are listening to on the people who just happen to be around. It’s a bit like finding yourself on the train sitting next to the person with their mp3 player turned up full volume and crap headphones that don’t insulate the sound. I can’t ever think of a time where someone has driven past me with a loud stereo and I’ve enjoyed what I’ve heard. Even if it was the best song in the world the fleeting and distorted sample never sounds good.

No matter how much you love your music, there’s surely no way that it sounds at its best at such loud volumes. Loud music is great, in a big space, but not reverberating around inside a small metal box. And I like driving with my windows down as much as anybody else does – but only when the temperature gets above freezing. So it’s got to be about sending a message out. Whether it’s "Look at me I have great taste in music", "Look at me I’m bad" or "Look at me I’m worth having sex with", it’s unsubtle and arrogant.

I’m going to side-step a bit and suggest that loud music from car stereos is linked to a particular cultural scene, centred on the cars rather than the music. I’m really not into cars, I have a car because it is useful as a means of transport but nothing more than that. I can understand that other people get more gratification from their cars, it’s a big investment after all and so if it gives you added pleasure it’s a bonus. But I really don’t get why people would want to spend a fortune on modifying a car to the point where the insurance rockets and the re-sale value plummets. Whenever my attention is dragged towards loud music on the street, the typical source is a fairly regular car that looks like it’s had the ‘Pimp My Ride’ treatment. I’ve seen sparkly alloys, blacked out windows, stuck-on spoilers and even neon lights that shine from under the car body. In the 80s it was ghetto blasters held over the shoulder, now it’s Escorts that look like they’ve been raped by Tim Westwood.

On the street outside my work (and where many of my friends live) there is a vibrant "cars with loud stereos" scene. Most nights there will be at least three pimped up cars with blasting stereos, crammed full of boys. They aren’t in their cars because they are going somewhere, they are stationary with no intention of freeing up the parking spot for anyone else. They all jump in and out of each others cars, swap seats within single vehicles and turn the lights on and off, but the cars never move. They have their windows down and their stereos turned up so there’s just an uncomfortable blend of different bass tempos struggling for dominance. You would assume that they’d be more comfortable indoors where they can all be together at the same time listening to music in comfort. But they’re in their cars not moving. It just seems so pointless.

I reckon the voting this week will depend on whether people are more inclined to reflect on the fact that they like to play their music loud when they are in the car or the fact that it bugs them when other people do it. My appeal to you, then, is to vote for the greater good.

The case for the defence (Ian)

I'm tempted to start my defence by noting that the reason you should let people who play music too loudly on their car stereos off is because in the real world what you do in the privacy of your own vehicle is not something the law is going to mess with casually. But this is a feature where we've (occasionally successfully) prosecuted people and careers, so I'll leave that – although I'd like to remind the court that when it comes to music being played too loudly from car stereos, what I'm defending are the cases that aren't already illegal. Sure, if you're sitting in your apartment listening to music and some jerk down on the street actually drowns that out you can call the cops and hit him with a noise complaint – the need for prosecution comes instead from those devious souls who keep it just under the legal limit.

I could also defend the practice on the rather milquetoast grounds that although these people are deeply annoying, they're not really hurting anyone and you wouldn't want anyone telling you what to do with the music you're listening to, can't we all just get along etc etc, and although that's a pretty nebbishy way to go about it I do think there's a point there. How often does one of these people drive past you, or wound up stopped at a light next to where you're walking? Is it really all that big a deal? But this kind of argument, in addition to being as exciting as dishwater, concedes an important point to the prosecution that I do not wish to concede.

Namely, I don't think it's obvious or unproblematic to say that music being played too loudly from car stereos is annoying or negative. Sure, if you're standing there with your iPod on, solipsistically ignoring the rest of the world (and that practice isn't as benign as you might think, once you start thinking about it) it's bothersome to have some shuddering bassbins interrupt your twelth listen through Funeral of the day or what have you. But by that standard we should be prosecuting many, many things, from construction to conversation, and the burden of proving that we should want to do so is surely on the rude, selfish listener who insists on going everywhere enveloped in a cloud of their own stimulation.

Give a thought instead to John Cage. Whatever you think of the man's music (or is that “music”?), he walked it like he talked it; during the later years of his life he owned no stereo, no records, no music as we'd understand it. When he wanted to hear music, he'd open his window into the busy New York City street. Now, I'm not suggesting we should all ditch our stereos and computers (or even iPods, which have a valuable place as long as you're not using them all the bloody time), but surely if you have any affection at all for the natural noises of your environment then your walk to work or brief pause at the bus stop is enlivened, not dampened, by the temporary imposition of blaringly loud tunes, especially ones from a genre or style you wouldn't normally listen to yourself.

Maybe I've just got it good in Canada – the vast majority of drivers I've encountered who do this have their windows up and all I can make out are sublimely twisted bass vibrations, ones that rattle your clothes and leave you feeling strangely alert when the car peels out. But I don't think the real problem is with those drivers, who admittedly are inconsiderate pricks who will get theirs by driving themselves to deafness (another reason not to prosecute – what more will we do to them?), but in our attitude towards them. This isn't some sort of abstract argument for me; I heartily enjoy the occasional encounter with these overgenerous folks, and as someone who only breaks out the iPod at the gym or in my cubicle I don't see why my sonic experience should be curtailed by those who need earbuds crammed in there 24/7. It's unsurprising that our knee-jerk reaction to people playing music too loudly in their cars is annoyance, but we need to consider whether that's the best way to go before pillorying them all.

* * * * *

Thanks to Alison and Ian. Now it's over to you. Guilty or innocent - YOU decide. The comments box is open and awaiting your comments - you've got until Friday to make up your mind...

Sunday, February 25, 2007

In The Dock: Music biographies - the verdict

In favour of Phill's case for the prosecution: 3 (Pete Ashton, Dead Kenny, Wan)

In favour of Damo's case for the defence: 5 (Swiss Toni, Pete G, Simon, Ben, Nick The Snick)

Abstentions: 1 (Caskared)

So, after last week's triumph for the prosecution, the defence has it once again - though it was much closer than it has been in recent weeks.

Thanks to Phill and Damo for their contributions.

Coming soon: Alison takes issue with music being played too loudly from car stereos, while Ian defends.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Sheer Khan

Bat For Lashes/Mechanical Bride, 23rd February 2007, Leicester Y Theatre

The Y Theatre, which looks like a scaled down and modernised version of a classic music hall, didn't often put on pop concerts, for want of a better word, until very recently. Until recently I'd only seen Cat Power there in 2001, a pleasingly odd diversion from its usual intimate jazz and blues events, stand-up nights and local theatre; now they're putting on two quality shows on successive Fridays. (You'll have to wait to find out who's on next week)

The first pleasant surprise of the evening comes when, having been expecting some local acoustic chancer after reading various reviews of the tour to date, we instead get Lauren Doss, AKA much touted Transgressive Records signing and occasional Larrikin Love backing vocalist Mechanical Bride. Regular readers of my own blog will be aware that I have a natural affinity to anyone whose CV includes the phrase "has supported Jeremy Warmsley", and her fragile folkiness, accompanied by someone on violin and glockenspiel, is reminiscent of a less cutting version of his occasional compadre Emmy The Great. What she lacks thus far in stage presence her voice makes up for, not least in starting with a stunning version of Chapel accompanied only by a choral backing tape. Even in this year of an upswing in talented female singer-songwriters, she's very much one to watch.

Speaking of which, why did it take me so long to catch on to Bat For Lashes? If I'd concentrated at the time Fur And Gold would have been in the running for my top 20 albums of 2006, such is the beguiling nature of Natasha Khan's songwriting, yet it's not until seeing the live show that her aims fall into place. Emerging in her trademark shimmering gold headband and face glitter, if somewhat offset by a yellow T-shirt and jeans, she starts by singing in French accompanied only by wind chimes, which is different but at least instantly marks her territory out. Opener proper Trophy, in a version that soars and uncovers its previously subtly hidden PJ Harvey elements, demonstrates the treatment meted out to much of the album in its live setting - more visceral, a lot more atmospheric, bringing out the character in the songs. Khan spends the set either up front gallantly working her shakers or behind a keyboard while her three female bandmates switch between everything from drums to autoharp, zither and whatever else was to hand. Khan is an engaging stage presence, grinning between songs at the appreciation shown and attempting to encourage everyone else to join the two girls sitting on their own at the front. When she requests we help her out on wolf noises to open I Saw A Light a good portion of the audience is all too willing to help. Such theatrics can turn out for the worse, but here it's all in keeping with the spooked setting.

The most common point of comparison is Bjork, who Khan does sound more than a little like when hitting her top note wail (think Play Dead), but other comparisons come to mind throughout, whether Tori Amos' wide eyed worldview and emotional fragility, Patrick Wolf's blend of traditonal instruments and the electronic era, even the icy demeanour of Black Box Recorder's Sarah Nixey on the partly spoken What's A Girl To Do? This, however, is very much Khan's own world that takes in fairytale imagination, oddly romanticised character narratives and quasi-pagan mysticism, and while that lyrical path has been well trodden you can see the emotional cross-referencing to quoted influences David Lynch and Donnie Darko. Some songs are reworked, especially well in the case of a "voodoo style" Sarah which features Khan on big stick percussion, while an unlikely on the face of it cover of Bruce Springsteen's I'm On Fire is made her own, slowed down and having its masculine bravado removed. By the closer, new song Moon & Moon sounding like a haunted version of Moon Pix-era Cat Power, it's clear something is at work within Bat For Lashes that's beyond plausible accusations of art-school singer-songwriter kookiness. Gig of the year contender? Too early to really tell, but it's a very high water mark to set in February.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Surveying the 'zine scene


Reincarnation - do you believe in it? Well, Inner City Pirates certainly do. As The Artists Formerly Known As My Red Cell, they signed to V2 on a five album deal, put out a debut called 13 In My 31 and toured in support of The Libertines and The White Stripes. Like most rock 'n' roll fables, it didn't last, the band suffering the double indignity of being unceremoniously dropped and having to change their name. But now they've been reborn with slightly different personnel.

So, what new form have they taken? Quite a fashionable one - all Franz beats from a mulleted drummer, synths from a chap in a neckerchief and New Edition T-shirt, skinny jeans, art school chic. You get the impression they perhaps think they're rather better than they are, though the songs about wanting friends when "you wanted enemies" and the closer about "love and affection" are up amongst the best of the night. Vocalist Jessy Allen has her feet firmly on the floor, though, receiving texts from her mum during the set. "She's downstairs in her dressing gown", she tells us. Aw, bless.

John Robert Parker Ravenscroft may no longer be with us, but his legend and legacy live on, the term "Peel favourites" still a marker of quality. Having had countless songs played on his show (including a track from their debut demo) and recorded no fewer than three Peel sessions, Amsterdam's Persil can be justifiably described as such. They can also count amongst their admirers The Wedding Present and Blondie, who've both taken them on tour, even if they're not to everyone's tastes.

The duo comprise David (guitar, synths, beats, oddly shaggy hair) and Martine (vocals, synths, beats, stripey stockings and green dress which would be worn either by a psychiatric nurse or a psychiatric patient - I can't decide which, though the way she wraps the microphone cord around her neck suggests the latter). Their mission appears to be to create a kind of mutant robotic replica of fanzine-friendly indiepop, perhaps best exemplified by 'Happy', the lead track from their 2005 EP Tune-Up, and 'Light Up My Life', from last year's second full LP Comfort Noise.

At times the intricacies of their songs are lost in the mix, and there's a glitch with the projections which leaves the message "This CD is dirty" displayed on the screen for some time, none of us quite knowing if this is deliberate. But for me Persil are more than all white in the end (arf). And, what's more, I have it on good authority that they're the perfect houseguests.

From Peel favourites to Pryke favourites. And as soon as The Retro Spankees are underway, it's not hard to see why Birmingham's foremost cultural gourmand is such a fan.

Regular gig comrades of Misty's Big Adventure, Andy's other love, they play what they themselves describe as "playschool rock 'n' roll", making an absurdly hyperactive racket garnished with lots of yelping. The drummer has a massive grin. The bassist is wearing a tabard and cat ears. One of the two guitarists - who is so pencil-thin that his clothes are literally hanging off him - has his keyboard set up on an ironing board and surrounded by cuddly toys. Yes, The Retro Spankees are a lot of fun.

All of which means that Plan B endorsed headliners Das Wanderlust come over as something as an anti-climax. Don't get me wrong: there's plenty to admire about the self-styled "wrong-pop" duo of Laura Simmons and Andy Elliott (tonight bolstered by the very sizeable presence of a third member on bass and stand-up drums), not least the incident-free run through genius single 'The Orange Shop'.

But more often than not their set is very definitely not incident-free.

The key problem is the drum machine. Let's draw a line in the sand: fucking up the opening of a song once or twice is just about permissible (and endearing) under the Code of Punk Rock Amateurishness - but to do so four or five times is downright patience-testing. That same sloppiness rears its ugly head again later in the set and, while they can laugh about how much it's cost to get in to witness this shambles (even though Peppermint Patti gigs do certainly represent good value, at £6 for four bands), it's less of a joke for those of us watching. Don't remind us, and we'll be more likely to be forget and forgive.

"If you have no ears and thought that was good, there are some CDs over there". Hmm. Das Wanderlust deserve a second hearing, but, of tonight's bands, it's Persil who claim my £2 for a copy of Tune-Up.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

In The Dock: Music biographies

(If you're wondering what this is all about, click here.)

This week's subject: Music biographies

The case for the prosecution (Phill)

Music biographies often promise so much but deliver so little.

Do you want to know how many GCSEs Alex from the Arctic Monkeys got? How about where Boy George’s nan used to live? Or what about the exact layouts of each of Joe Strummer’s squats that he lived in during 1975? All of these facts are available in biographies about these people.

There are two kinds of biographies: those written by the band or singer themselves and those written by others.

The term "autobiography" is of course a misnomer as almost all of them are written by a ghost writer. This makes sense as most musicians are illiterate and can barely string a sentence together. Also as they were often so out of their heads on drugs, booze or both, how on earth are they meant to remember what happened 10 years ago, let along 10 hours ago?!

Ghost writers are shadowy individuals who make a career out of pretending to be famous people through the medium of words. Failed journalists, failed writers, or just generally weirdos, the career of a ghost writer is a strange one.

What often happens is the ghost writer will gather their material from a series of telephone calls with the subject and then write the book in the style they imagine the author would write. So for example, if you are buying Sharon Osbourne’s best selling autobiography 'Extreme', what you are probably getting is a series of telephone conversations transcribed and then a load of stuff that the ghost writer imagined might have happened.

The one that makes me laugh is when the book cover says someone WITH someone. What kind of a partnership is that? It’s a bit like Wham!, George Michael WITH Andrew Ridgeley.

Then there is the other kind of music biography. Most of these are written by journalists. And as we all know, journalists are SCUM. How can you trust a word that a journalist writes?

In a best-case scenario such as the new Joe Strummer book, the journalist has been fan of a band since before they were famous, interviewing the band many times and getting to know them in a way many others don’t. However, this is a rarity.

What is more likely is that when a band springs to prominence, around six months later a selection of cash-in reveal-all biographies are released. Often these contain glossy pictures, lots of quotes taken from magazine interviews, people who knew the band when they were 13 and if we’re lucky, a one line quote from the drummer's nan. Usually they contain no input from the band whatsoever.

After watching the Brit Awards I would anticipate that in the next six months, we have the following delights to look forward to

'Awesome Orson' – The full story of the whiny, annoying, and slightly fat American band.

'Man Morrison' - How James Morrison went from being a non-descript van driver from Rugby to a non-descript bloke from Rugby with a number one album.

'Fratelli Bolognaise' – All the dirty secrets of the Scottish band who have made one mediocre album.

The first Arctic Monkeys biography was released when they were about 18. Hanson’s came out when they had an average age of 13. I propose a new rule. A biography is only allowed to be written after the subject is dead. True, it might make research a little more difficult, but as most biographers never actually speak to the subject of the book, perhaps it won’t matter too much.

Let’s summarise a few key points:

Music biographies are often self-indulgent.

Music biographies are often not true.

Music biographies are often boring - because musicians are often not very interesting

If you want to find out about a musician or singer, the best thing you can do is listen to as much of their recorded output as possible. That will give you the best insight into who they really are.

The case for the defence (Damo)

Imagine a parallel universe for one minute. A parallel internet hosting a parallel blog with a parallel version of In The Dock. Someone is prosecuting not music biographies, but music itself.

"But have you heard Limp Bizkit? Towers Of London? Technotronic? Toploader? There’s so much bad music out there! There would be no bad music if there was no music..."

Back to reality.

There are some dreadful music biographies out there. In fact, there are probably more bad ones than good ones. Cut-and-paste jobs that compile magazine articles, interviews with people almost unrelated to the bands (because close associates have got better things to do with their time than speak to crap biographers), factual error upon factual error... and many offer no insight at all into the subject or, worse still, use the cuttings to draw wildly inaccurate conclusions. Everyone’s got their own view on art critics, but at least they help us filter out the worst offenders in literature... If you buy one of these rush jobs, you have only yourself to blame.

Music biographies, at their best, tell fascinating stories about fascinating people. Not necessarily very nice people, but fascinating people nonetheless. Where to begin? A few examples...

1. 'The Dirt'. A book about the band Mötley Crüe. Like the best biographies, you don’t have to like the subject to enjoy the book. In fact, if you did like the subject, you won’t after you’ve read this. They are quite evidently the most unlikeable people in rock history... and this book’s in their own words. You could open the book at any page and there will be at least one memorable anecdote... an achievement by the standards of any genre.

2. 'Heavier Than Heaven'. Few artists illustrate the bad / good ratio of music biographies better than Kurt Cobain. But this one cuts the sensationalism, and doesn’t necessarily paint a picture you’ll like of him. In other words, far more honest than the many writers who chose to canonise him. It’s gut-wrenching in places - towards the start of the book he’s sleeping in his car... towards the end, a millionaire with a wife and a kid, he’s back there. What you see between those two points is a man completely incapable of instilling stability in his life for even a minute.

3. 'The Last Party'. Remember that you all supported (cough) Britpop last week? You should read this book. It should be school curriculum reading if the government’s serious about getting kids off drugs, until Pete Doherty’s autobiography comes out.

4. 'Everything'. Whilst it’s good if music biographies are even-handed, a love letter to the subject is no bad thing in the right hands. And this is still as honest a portrayal of Manic Street Preachers as you’ll see anywhere.

5. 'My Magpie Eyes Are Hungry For The Prize'. A good record label is more than just a company that puts out decent records, they usually have stories of their own. This one concerns Creation Records and is out of print, but you should really seek it out. 800 pages of it and not a word of that wasted. Unlike many of the subjects...

With only 750 words, I need to stop there to address another criticism of music biographies, namely: "How do you know they’re honest, unbiased, and telling the whole story?" Simple answer: you don’t. If they were always 100% honest, they’d probably be a lot less interesting. If they were always unbiased, the writer’s love of the subject might not shine through (essential if the book’s going to be worth reading). And if they told the whole story... well, I don’t really need to know how many takes were required to nail 'Like A Rolling Stone' in the studio. Decent books need decent editing – the best ones aren’t called page turners for nothing.

In conclusion, I have to apologise for once again trotting out the "good and bad in everything" argument, but unless you can safely say that a well-written book about music and musicians holds no interest to you, I hope I’ve got your vote.

PS. I’ve been careful to quote only a selection of those that I’ve already read, rather than relying on the opinions of others, but there are many more widely regarded as classics currently sitting on my "to read" list. 'Hammer Of The Gods', 'Wouldn’t It Be Nice', 'Cash', 'Morrissey And Marr: The Severed Alliance'...

* * * * *

Thanks to Phill and Damo. Now it's over to you. Guilty or innocent - YOU decide. The comments box is open and awaiting your comments - you've got until Sunday to make up your mind...



Dear oh dear. To have booked May Contain Nuts to open tonight's bill, either the promoter hasn't got a clue, or they've got a very warped sense of humour.

No doubt MCN are good at what they do - but what they do is fucking rubbish. As you might have surmised from the name, the foursome clearly believe that NOFX and Sum 41 are beacons of musical genius and that intellectualism is, like, dumb. The height of their wit is to name a song about Osama Bin Laden 'Caveman', and their raison d'etre seems to be find as many variations on the Offspring-esque "WHOA WHOA" backing vocals as possible. Their album Zombies And Missiles ... AND FIRE!!! is available at the back, we are informed, but no stampede is forthcoming.

None of this matters, though, because, as they say themselves, "talent is overrated"...

The appearance of the next band rapidly sucks people away from the bar and out of the shadows into the void in front of the stage. The New 1920 (no 's' on the end, though I keep wanting to add one) are used to bigger stages than this, having played four dates on Lostprophets' November tour of the UK, and vocalist Colin Francies and drummer Nathan Phillips both used to be in local favourites Douglas.

As a frontman, Francies is a natural. He gives it his all, kicking off some of the songs with short keyboard lines before leaping off the stage, whirling the microphone around like The Mars Volta's Cedric Bixler and hanging from the rigging (which is thankfully firmly attached to the low ceiling).

And yet musically they're not really worth working up a sweat over. With both the music itself and song titles like 'I'm Staying Swiss On This' and 'This Isn't Over, Not By A Long Shot', it's clear we're firmly in Fall Out Boy territory i.e. poppy emo-lite that registers no impression on me. Such is the current climate, though, that with the addition of a couple of big-chorused singles to their arsenal their rise could be stratospheric.

It's ironic that the North East, for so long synonymous in musical terms with utter shite, is currently turning out quality band after quality band just as the region's status as a hotbed of footballing talent is coming into question. Latest off the production line that, in the space of just a couple of years, has given us The Futureheads, Maximo Park and Field Music, are DARTZ!.

Hailing from Middlesbrough, the soberly and smartly dressed threesome exhibit a familiar fascination with arty punk and new wave - but, like recent touring partners Hot Club de Paris, they bring additional influences to the table, drawing inspiration from the more eccentric fringes of the US indiepop spectrum (including defunct post-punkers Q And Not U and SWSL favourites The Dismemberment Plan) as well as from the predominantly American tradition rather negatively labelled math-rock.

And it's the maths supply teacher look they're rocking, too. It's certainly not hard to imagine ruler-twanged bits of rubber raining down on bassist / vocalist William Anderson while he struggles to explain the basics of trigonometry to a bunch of unruly 14-year-olds. But when he takes to the stage, off come the glasses (set neatly atop the amp) and the sandy-coloured jumper too. Together with guitarist Henry Carden and drummer / vocalist Philip Maughan, he clearly means business.

What follows is a smart slap around the chops, in the best possible way. Undeterred by the flat midweek crowd and ongoing technical difficulties with the mics (c'mon Barfly, sort it out!), they take the opportunity to showcase the majority of debut LP This Is My Ship, released the day before. Splendid singles 'St Petersburg' and 'Once Twice Again!' are pop-punk with more than half a brain, while most of the other songs jerk and twitch their way easily into my affections. 'Prego Triangolos' in particular is superb, boasting just the sort of shouted chant whose meaning remains enigmatic however many times it replays itself in your head: "You have three sides, but you're not a triangle / You have three sides, but you are a square!". And we're back to the trigonometry...

Suffice to say, then, that with DARTZ! it all adds up - and that that North-Eastern production line shows no signs of letting up.

Friday, February 16, 2007

In The Dock: Bob Dylan - the verdict

In favour of Swiss Toni's case for the prosecution: 9 (Damo, Del, J, Lord Bargain, Mark, Mike, Suburban Hen, Martin, Sarah)

In favour of James' case for the defence: 8 (Ian, D Chedwick Bryant, Dead Kenny, Samantha, Wan, Caskared, JonnyB, Ben)

Abstentions: 1 (Nick The Snick)

After weeks of the defence triumphing comfortably, WE HAVE A GUILTY VERDICT! Albeit one achieved at least in part thanks to a coincidental anti-Dylan post on Troubled Diva and some sly comments-box-pimping from ST which resulted in a late surge of votes for the prosecution... That said, I must confess to being tempted to change my verdict the other way.

So, Mr Zimmerman will be doing porridge, presumably forced to sit through DVD after DVD of his recent live performances with his eyes held open 'Clockwork Orange' style.

Thanks to Swiss Toni and James for their contributions.

Coming soon (hopefully): Phill and Damo do battle over music biographies.

Greetings, pop pickers...

On Troubled Diva it's the fifth year for Mike's ace Which Decade Is Top For Pops? series, and he's asking you to stand in judgement upon the Top Tens from this week in 1967, 1977, 1987, 1997 and 2007. It doesn't matter if you've never taken part before - you'll soon pick it up. Just click on the link and scroll down to start with the Number Tens.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

In The Dock: Bob Dylan

(If you're wondering what this is all about, click here.)

This week's subject: Bob Dylan

The case for the prosecution (Swiss Toni)

Robert Allen Zimmerman. Bob Dylan. Singer-songwriter, author, musician, poet. His lyrics incorporate politics, literature, social commentary and philosophy. In the course of his 40+ year career he has dabbled in many styles including folk, country, blues, rock, jazz and gospel. He has recorded some of the most famous albums of all time: The Times They Are A’Changing, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde On Blonde, Blood On The Tracks... blah, blah, blah. Only a fool or a madman would look to prosecute Dylan wouldn’t they? Isn’t he one of the untouchables?

No. I don’t think he is. I’m not going to try to deny that he has been incredibly successful and influential, but I put it to you, the honourable members of The Art Of Noise jury, that Bob Dylan should be sent down.

My case is threefold:

1. He is overrated.

Yes, he has produced some of the greatest and most influential albums of all time. But let’s not beat about the bush: he’s also produced some absolute shit. In fact, I would hazard a guess that he has produced more out-and-out rubbish than many artists have produced records. Out of 31 studio albums and God alone knows how many live albums and bootlegs, how many can you name? Maybe five? There’s precious little evidence of any quality control in there. It’s got worse over time too.

Here’s a man who had a purple patch like few other people in history, but that purple patch was more or less spent by the end of the 1960s. Yes, I know that Blood On The Tracks was produced in 1975, but these gems are now the exception and not the rule. Every album he releases is seized upon by reviewers for evidence that he’s still got it, and once in a while, he proves them right with a diamond like Time Out Of Mind or Modern Times. More often though, he just reminds everyone how brilliant he was, not how brilliant he is now.

2. He’s a relic and a sellout.

Here’s a quiz for you: who said this?

"I don't know anybody who's made a record that sounds decent in the past 20 years, really. You listen to these modern records, they're atrocious, they have sound all over them. There's no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like ... static ... CDs are small. There's no stature to it."

That’s right. Bob Dylan. Everything was better in the 1960s, right Bob? You do realise that includes you, right? Have you heard yourself singing recently? This is the same Bob Dylan, incidentally, who has licensed Starbucks to sell his CDs. Way to stick it to the Man, Bob. He once exclusively licensed a compilation album to Victoria’s Secret. He also appeared in an advert of theirs, but I suppose you can’t blame the old goat for that, can you?

3. The Never Ending Tour.

Dylan is famed for his hard touring, and he’s been playing more than 100 dates per year for the last twenty years. That’s a pretty amazing achievement for a man old enough for a bus pass ... but have you heard him performing recently? His voice is absolutely shot and he seems hell-bent on either refusing to play his most famous songs, or in reworking them until they are unrecognisable. Why exactly does he think that people go to see him? Why does he book out the biggest arenas and set the ticket prices at well over £50?

I saw him at the Docklands Arena when he was touring Time Out Of Mind - a good album. I was looking forward to the gig and put aside the ridiculous ticket prices and the godawful venue for a chance to see a real genius. He was fucking awful. Every single song he played was unrecognisable and set to a funereal dirge. I actually found myself hoping he didn’t play any of the really good stuff because he was sure to ruin it. He was so bad that I actually fell asleep. I’ve been to hundreds of concerts, and some of them have been dreadful, but I’ve never actually fallen asleep before. The great man clearly did not give a rat’s arse about the ten thousand people who had come to see him and had paid through the nose to do so. It was unforgiveable. He was a brilliant, brilliant artist, but for that gig alone he wanted hanging, drawing and quartering.

Remember him as he was. Vote guilty.

The case for the defence (James)

Let me get this out of the way: I am surprised to find myself in this position. Defending Dylan is a little like defending like defending God, but easier – after all, I have seen Dylan. Not in the flesh, but on TV... and that is more than can be said for God. But looking at the body of work that Dylan has produced seems to me to put him way beyond prosecution. Just looking at his output between ’63 and ’66 is like looking at the apple that inspired Newton. Nothing was ever the same again, and while it would be rash to say that nothing has ever come along since which is comparable in importance, those LPs are clearly remarkable, if only for the impact that they had.

Even if we take the imaginary step of ignoring his mid ‘60s output; he is still a behemoth of staggering proportion. Blood On The Tracks and Desire validate his entire output single-handedly. The same can be said for the single track, ‘Not Dark Yet’ from 1997’s Time Out Of Mind which confirmed Dylan’s renewed importance and has continued until last year’s Modern Times.

In the spirit of the proverb, the best defence is offence, then, I am going to try to address possible reasons for wanting to prosecute Dylan.

1. "I just don’t like Dylan".

Fine. No-one is telling you that you have to like him, but this is not a reason to prosecute. The impact that he has had on musical history is more than enough – changing the face of the folk movement on both sides of the Atlantic, his contributions to new genres (folk-rock, country-rock), his impact on lyricism, his impact on numerous other bands – including The Beatles, who subsequently influenced others.

2. "His lyrics are meaningless and obscure".

Maybe some of them are, but so what? His lyrical style has shifted according to his purposes at that given moment. ‘The Times They Are a Changin’’ is not obscure and neither is ‘Hurricane’, along with countless other songs. I do not personally agree that his lyrics are so meaningless. They are sometimes difficult, even impenetrable, but they are not necessarily intended to be straightforward and accessible – and this is not the same as meaningless.

3. "He is just sooo over-rated".

Again, so what? I think it quite hard to over-rate someone so influential, but let’s play ball... Where does it say that you have to match the rating that you are given by critics? I don’t think Dylan has performed for the adulation of the critics for an awfully long time. It seems fair to say that Dylan has released some very good LPs over the years (if you disagree, see point one). Now, assuming that they were rated higher by the critics than they deserve – whose fault is that? Dylan’s? Is it fair to prosecute an artist because the critics are over-exuberant in their praise?

4. "He has proved inconsistent, having some serious lulls in quality".

So did Johnny Cash, but no-one was putting up a gallows for him. Having a lull is no crime in itself. Most artists that have been performing for nigh on fifty years will have a lull at some point. The fact that he has come back from them is far more important.

5. "He has a whiny voice".

Have we all become voice fascists now? Who are you? Simon Cowell...?

Besides, see point one again...

6. "He is a big phoney".

So was Salvador Dali; but he painted pretty pictures, so what do I care? Al Pacino never carries a gun when he walks around his house at home, or snorts mountains of cocaine while speaking in a Cuban accent. I hear that Kylie hardly ever sunbathes surrounded by beautiful people who move in unison. Nick Cave laughs himself stupid at Peanuts strips. He is an artist, and if he wants to project a persona in his music or on stage, who am I to complain? And if he is evasive when interviewed or difficult, fair play to him. I would be a little awkward if someone tried to psycho-analyse my every move too. Besides, where is the rule that says that you have to be sincere if you are a musician? And anyway, I am reliably informed that is his terribly sincere in his autobiography.

7. "I am a crazy person with an axe. I want to prosecute Bob Dylan".

Fair enough. You win.

* * * * *

Thanks to Swiss Toni and James. Now it's over to you. Guilty or innocent - YOU decide. The comments box is open and awaiting your comments - you've got until Friday to make up your mind...

Update: over on Troubled Diva, Mike has offered his advice to someone whose partner is suffering from "a rather nasty outbreak of Dylan Worship". I think his vote would definitely be for the prosecution, but it hasn't yet been cast - hurry up Mike, if you want to make tomorrow's deadline!

Friday, February 09, 2007

In The Dock: Britpop - the verdict

In favour of my case for the prosecution: 1 (Nick The Snick)

In favour of Kenny's case for the defence: 12 (Ian, Caskared, Jonathan S, Mike, Pete A, Paul W, Pete G, Del, Paul A, Lord Bargain, drmigs, James)

Abstentions: 1 (Damo)

Needless to say, the fact that Britpop has been resoundingly cleared of all charges and is seen almost unanimously as a Good Thing perturbs me no end.

Please, please, please let my punishment not be to have to listen to Mike's playlist.

I hate you all.

Coming soon: Swiss Toni is the assassin gunning for Bob Dylan, while James is the bodyguard throwing himself in the path of the bullets.

Blood sugar sex magic


What's with the oldies wandering around? Are they parents or - more likely - A&R people? If the latter, then they're probably taking a keen interest in The Toy Band. Whilst with hindsight my thoughts of "calculated careerist indie" the last time I saw them appear rather harsh, my first impressions are generally confirmed: they have the swagger and ability, but - crucially - not the songs. It's probably only a matter of time, though. And in any case, despite being cut from a different cloth to the other bands on tonight's bill, they soon win over a sizeable chunk of an originally indifferent crowd.

Last time I saw Richard Arnold, I very nearly literally bumped into him coming out of his house round the corner from ours in sunny Splott. The time before that was when he was fronting The International Karate Plus at a gig in Birmingham. Before that, he was in fuzz-pop minor deities Mo-Ho-Bish-O-Pi. And now here he is, back behind the drumkit after something of a hiatus with his new outfit King Alexander.

If there's one thing Cardiff is particularly hot on, it's bass-heavy noise-punk bands, and in King Alexander the city's got another. The difference is, though, that they're female-fronted and are rather more ambitious in their twin-vocalled arrangements. The opening of their set is blighted by technical problems, but thereafter they show definite signs of promise, if not always delivering. "Buy a badge and save a whale", they implore on 'We Are A Good Egg', but when I mosey on over to the merchandising table later all I can see are copies of their superbly named debut EP Despot Chic which, according to their website, "includes hand made packaging, animal sex and a drawing of a man's cock done by a girl"...

Cast your mind back to a time before Jack White grew a moustache, dated Renee Zellweger, started wearing a top hat on stage and made an advert for Coke. The White Stripes were a thrilling pretentious-free live prospect. It also escaped no-one's notice that there were only two of them. They awakened people to the possibility of a bass-less rock group - so it's them we've got to thank for the likes of Brighton's Blood Red Shoes. And thankful we should certainly be.

In this boy-girl duo, though, the roles are reversed: it's kohl-eyed beauty Laura-Mary Carter who plays guitar and the enthusiastic Steven Ansell who drums. It's also worth pointing out that, unlike Meg White, Ansell can actually sing, too...

Just like twopiece Winnebago Deal did when I was last here, the drumkit is placed right at the front of the stage, and so we're privileged to watch the chemistry between the two at close quarters. They talk about having played in a church on their last visit to Cardiff. Little wonder they're enjoying themselves much more this time around - their claustrophobic punk is far better suited to this sort of cramped, awkward space than to the airy and spacious Point.

If you had to suggest where Britain's answer to Yeah Yeah Yeahs would come from, Brighton would be fairly near the top of the list, and Carter manages to be both Nick Zinner and Karen O in one. Singles 'You Bring Me Down' and 'I'm Getting Bored By The Sea' also call to mind Sleater-Kinney and The Gossip, though are gratifyingly grittier than either.

After the encore, for which the pair swap instruments before crashing through a splendid surf guitar meltdown, Ansell heads to the back of the room to man the merchandising stall. As I curse my lack of a turntable (they've only released 7"s so far), he tells me what's next: three more weeks of touring Britain, then a few days off, then Europe, then recording on the album which isn't due until October (it's going to be a long wait...).

[Cheap excuse for a pun alert - yes, Ken, I've been watching and learning...] One can guess how the entries in the Blood Red Shoes diaries might read for tonight: came, saw, conquered.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

"Like Pop Will Eat Itself, only shitter"

Newly uploaded to the Vanity Project interviews site: my interview with Cardiff fuckheads Gindrinker, probably the only band ever to cite Godflesh, The Fall and Les Dawson as sources of inspiration. The interview is prefaced by a review of the duo's debut demo - I say "review", though really it's more a straightforward description because the songs sell themselves.

My thoughts on The Drones' Gala Mill - a sprawling, bloody and uniquely Australian take on Southern Gothic - are also now up on the main Vanity Project site. Their last album was called Wait Long By The River And The Bodies Of Your Enemies Will Float By...

Monday, February 05, 2007

In The Dock: Britpop

(If you're wondering what this is all about, click here.)

This week's subject: Britpop

The case for the prosecution (Ben)

As a grunge kid whose world was turned upside down by Nirvana (of which more in a few weeks), I was instinctively antipathetic towards Britpop. At the time, it seemed like a straight either / or choice. Looking back, my reaction was kneejerk, and over time I’ve come to appreciate the considerable merits of Pulp and Definitely Maybe – but that general dislike has never really dulled.

From fertile beginnings and after a brief flowering, every music “movement” withers, though generally not before sending forth some poisonous shoots. Undoubtedly, grunge threw up some very average bands: Alice In Chains and Silverchair, for a start. But Britpop elevated far more than its fair share of toss to grossly undeserved prominence. It’s right and proper that the charge sheet should list some of them: Geneva, Echobelly, The Bluetones, Cast, Menswe@r, Sleeper, Northside, Ocean Colour Scene. Musically spineless, lyrically pointless and will-to-live-sappingly shit the lot of them.

It was the music press who promoted these bands way beyond their talents. To a large extent Britpop was a media construction, perhaps more so than most music movements; certainly, the Oasis v Blur rivalry was cynically manufactured and then fuelled to increase sales of NME. A number of stylistically disparate groups were bundled together and marketed as “Britpop”, even though they were rarely representative of anything beyond the Good Mixer pub in Camden and bits of Manchester, or of anything other than white, conservative youth culture.

Not that the bands didn’t invite or even actively promote this impression of themselves. Britpop was a jingoistic response to grunge, the direct consequence of noses having been put out of joint by the plaid-shirted American oiks who had had the temerity to invade Britain via MTV and the airwaves. Oasis and Blur were not alone in revisiting their British (by which I mean English…) roots for “inspiration”. The back catalogues of The Beatles, The Kinks and The Jam were all duly exhumed and plundered.

Blur’s Parklife remains a glibly offensive appropriation of British (by which I mean English…) working-class culture, while, only a few years after Morrissey caused controversy by waving a Union Jack at Finsbury Park, Noel Gallagher had a guitar emblazoned with a Union Jack and Liam and Patsy snuggled up under a Union Jack duvet on the cover of Vanity Fair, either ignorant of or unconcerned by the flag’s racist associations. Meanwhile, British grunge copyists like Bush were lambasted not merely for not being very good but for being unpatriotic in daring to draw inspiration from across the Atlantic. My feeling that it was an either / or choice wasn’t just a figment of my imagination.

And then there was Britpop’s association with another phenomenon of the mid 90s, one which unfortunately remains with us today: New Laddism. The brothers Gallagher embodied the beery brainlessness and sexism of newly-founded lads’ mags like Loaded, but it was Blur – supposedly the cultured, intelligent alternative – who were responsible for Britpop’s absolute nadir, which appropriately enough came at its supposed peak. ‘Country House’ was itself utter drivel, but the video, partly inspired by ‘The Benny Hill Show’ and featuring lads’ mag favourite Joanne Guest, was infinitely worse. They claimed it was “ironic”. Bollocks.

And last but not least, may I point to the cosy collusion with New Labour, whose media-savvy leadership understood that image was all and that Britpop could be harnessed in their rebranding as a means of appealing to young voters and fuelling the “Cool Britannia” myth. When I recently (successfully) defended musicians dabbling in politics, I was only defending their right to do so; Noel Gallagher may have been too stupid to realise he was being used, but he was perfectly happy to dabble, extolling Blair’s virtues at every opportunity.

By the time Oasis released the bloated egofest Be Here Now, in August 1997, New Labour had swept to power, and Noel ‘n’ Tone had been snapped sharing a joke over a flute of champagne at No 10. Radiohead, who had sounded a jarring note during Britpop’s halcyon days with The Bends, saw through it all; their third album, released that June, contained the barbed commentary of ‘Electioneering’. Blur, meanwhile, had moved on. The wily Albarn has always been sensitive to cultural seachange, and less than two years after vigorously asserting and accentuating their Britishness, they had produced a self-titled album heavily influenced by American alternative rock and were busy proclaiming Pavement their favourite band. Britpop was dead. Good riddance.

The case for the defence (Dead Kenny)

So there I was, minding my own business, shooting the breeze (a pointless pastime, admittedly, but a guy's gotta have a hobby) when in blew the ill wind of an email reminder from Ben to say I had to provide a 750-word defence of Britpop by yesterday. This is how life starts to crumble like an arthritic spine - give a guy greying temples and he begins to resemble J Jonah Jameson already. Well, close... but no cigar, obviously.

My first instinct was to use the cop-out clause of just admitting hands-down that Britpop was inherently INDEFENSIBLE. Would've spoilt all your fun, for sure, but at least it would mean Dead Kenny'd spend the weekend chasing what the weekend's for - beer, women, and precious Premiership points for West Ham. But never let it be said that your correspondent has commitment problems, so following on from some intense internal dialogue, a compromise was brokered where the defence would be presented in some kind of approximation of stream-of-consciousness (uh-oh...) in place of the usual(?) serious and reasoned debate. Let's get ready to ramble, then.

First, the historical context. In March 2004, Oasis released their debut single 'Supersonic'. In April 2004 Kurt Cobain took a shotgun to his head. Coincidence? Possibly, if you listen to conspiracy theories and Sonic Youth too much. But just as punk was needed to wipe away the prog-rock cobwebs, Britpop simply had to happen to rid us of mopey Americans with personal hygiene issues who struggled so much to get laid that they were driven to scream "RAPE ME" in their lyrics (to which the only reasonable response was "not until you have a damn good shower, sunshine"). OK, Nirvana had their moments but their threatened afterlife of Bush, Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots was a fate worse than Def Leppard and it had to be crushed. The sneering glam stomp of 'Cigarettes And Alcohol' and life-affirming splendour of 'Live Forever' need to be heard within this perspective to be fully appreciated.

Next, the "definition of the genre to best suit my arguments" bit. My Britpop definition is anything that was British and Popular between 1994 and 1997, the timespan between the releases of 'Supersonic' and Oasis' third album Be Here Now. To clarify, The Prodigy are included, Kaiser Chiefs are not.

Next, the bit where we undercut the complaint that genre debate falls down when the identification of anything remotely good within it is used to validate a type of music that is otherwise inexcusable. In order to perform this conjuror's trick Dead Kenny will take a few from the top, take a few from the bottom and poke around a bit in the middle area until we get some joy.

So we'll cast to one side the top layer of undisputable greats from the time - Tricky's masterful and troubled Maxinquaye; the classic Oasis debut Definitely Maybe; Radiohead's The Bends and PJ Harvey slinking about on the Glastonbury stage in a skin-tight red catsuit. We'll also squeeze out the stinkiest of the irreducible, unredeemable shite - Ocean Colour Scene; Menswear; Weller's solo stuff; Fatboy Slim (his music's ageing worse than his clueless wife).

What we're left with then, are just our inbetweeners, giving us a reasonable impression of the real pulse behind a "genre" to compare with other times and styles. And the more you think about the Britpop era, the more you can't help but be struck by the sheer range covered - the art-school pop of Pulp; post-punk stylings of Elastica and cheerful melodic suss of Supergrass rubbing shoulders with the lush electronic thrum of Orbital; epic soundtrack material by Underworld and The Prodigy's bonkers electro ravings.

Even old shoegazers like Lush found some Top 40 action in the Britpop boom, Ealing in the years with the spiky 'Ladykillers'.

Oddballs like Jarvis Cocker and Neil Hannon were embraced into the mainstream in a way we hadn't seen since punk.

Multi-culturalism started to make itself felt with the emergence of Sonya Aurora Madan-led Echobelly; Cornershop and Asian Dub Foundation.

Girl singers were not just glamorous but they gave good copy as well - Sonya Aurora Madan again, as well as entertaining rentagobs like Shirley Manson and Louise Wener.

Derided by ultra-solemn rock snobs they may be, but concerts by the likes of Shed 7 and Sleeper supplied your correspondent with some of the best nights of his life. Shed 7's 'On Standby' contains one of the great intros of all time. Sleeper's 'Delicious' appears to be in praise of cum. Louise Wener made sleeping with your drummer fashionable long before Jack White.

TFI Friday may have been hosted by Chris Evans but how many great bands got to play live on mainstream TV at 6pm either before or since?

It's impossible to listen to 'Alright' by Supergrass without gagging on glee.

Lamb's 'Gorecki' displays arguably the best synthesis of beats and strings known to civilisation. It was one of the greatest songs of the 90s, if not all time.

Marion and Geneva were about fifteen years behind their time. Which meant they were also about eight years ahead of their time.

A review of a Supergrass / Bluetones double-header got your hack his first local press review. The Bluetones were described as having more harmonies, rhapsodies and melodies than a Captain Scarlet boxset.

Even rubbishy old Blur made a great tune eventually in 'Song 2'. Whoo-hoo, indeed.

Oh c'mon, Britpop was fun. The heaviness and darkness of the hangover since only highlights what a great fucken party it was at the time.

But then, Dead Kenny's just a git in front of the computer, just like you. So maybe you need to search for the hero inside yourself for the answers. Your correspondent did this once, and just found lots of mucus, viscera, bones, muscle and a pumping, beating heart. Which was a conclusion in itself, although the surgeons afterwards weren't quite so philosophical (serious fellows, but they soon had me in stitches).


PS Will this do?

* * * * *

Thanks to Dead Kenny - his overlength contribution will be forgiven just this once, because he was up against me and I'm feeling unusually lenient, but woe betide anyone else who tries to pass off over 1,000 words as being 750 or less!

Now it's over to you. Guilty or innocent - YOU decide. The comments box is open and awaiting your comments - you've got until Friday to make up your mind...

Bad cover version

Pitchfork's Ryan Schreiber lists his 25 Worst Album Covers Of 2006. Those named and shamed include TV On The Radio, Lupe Fiasco, Mew, Rod Stewart and The Who.


Watch the YouTube footage from The Arcade Fire's acoustic rendition of 'Wake Up' in the foyer of Porchester Hall in London last night and wish you were there.

On a rather different note, I'm still not sure whether this and the site it appears on is a spoof or the work / thoughts of a genuine nutter. Perhaps it'd be best to take the man's advice and steer clear of all the named bands, especially Elton John because he's "really gay". Thanks to Abbie for the link either way.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

In The Dock: Radio 1 - the verdict

In favour of Damo's case for the prosecution: 3 (Mike, Anon, Alison)

In favour of Paul's case for the defence: 10 (Martin, Lord Bargain, Simon, Adam, Swiss Toni, Stevious, Del, drmigs, James, Caskared)

Abstentions: 2 (Nick The Snick, Ben)

So Radio 1 is pronounced not guilty, and by some margin. Surely the thought of Chris Moyles remaining at large should have had jurors pressing for the reintroduction of the death penalty? Oh well.

Thanks to Damo and Paul for their contributions.

Coming soon: Dead Kenny and I have a right old ding-dong about Britpop. Probably.